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Shadow of Dow

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Last October, with an air of assured finality, a panel of civic leaders convened by Dow Chemical Co. decreed that the issue of toxic contamination in Midland was, at long last, dead. “There is no evidence of any health consequences in Midland, Mich.,” Mayor R. Drummond Black declared after months of study. “We know that it’s bad stuff, but what we’ve got here ... is of no risk to the community, so leave it alone.” That message was splashed across the front page of the town’s daily newspaper; the decree was unwavering, definitive, absolute.

That’s why a report released earlier this month by state and federal health officials seemed all the more startling: “The data necessary to determine if dioxin-contaminated soil in the Midland area poses a public health risk are not available; therefore the site poses an indeterminate public health hazard.”

Which is exactly what one Midland resident has been saying for the past quarter century.

Diane Hebert (pronounced ay-bear) was still a young woman when she arrived in Midland during the late 1970s, an attractive former stewardess whose husband had just landed a plum job piloting corporate jets for the multinational chemical firm founded by Herbert H. Dow.

Deep beneath the flat farmland of this one-time lumber town lay the ancient brine sea that first brought Dow to the area. He’d devised an inexpensive way to extract bromine from the vast, salty reservoir at the close of the 19th century. Hebert, on the other hand, didn’t know a thing about chemistry when she first hit Midland. The daughter of a Flint car dealer, she was content to play the role of wife and mother, finally living the good life in a five-bedroom house in an upscale part of town after years of moving from city to city as her husband gained flying time at low-paying commuter airlines.

Hebert hadn’t been in town long when she first heard the word “dioxin.” A group of more than 200 similar substances, dioxins and their chemical cousins have no useful properties. They are waste byproducts of chlorine manufacturing and incineration. And Dow’s central Michigan plant has been a prime source of the stuff. It was found in the Agent Orange used by America in the Vietnam War, and in the pesticides the company pumped out at a plant that produced everything from Saran Wrap to mustard gas over the years. Dioxin was created by the incinerator burning the company’s hazardous waste, and pumped into the Tittabawassee River flowing along the sprawling chemical factory’s southern border.

Nursing her second child at the time, Hebert became concerned after seeing media accounts warning that the toxin could be transferred from mother to child through breast milk. So she began to look into the issue.

That was in 1977.

A quarter century later, Hebert is at the forefront of a controversy around the presence of dioxin in Midland. The fight for information has been a long one, and the battle often lonely. This is the quintessential company town, with Dow employing about 6,000 people — half at the sprawling chemical plant that covers 1,900 acres, and half at the campuslike company headquarters — in a county that boasts of having more engineers and chemists per capita than any other region in America. The name Dow graces museums, a library and a lush botanical garden. With $28 billion in worldwide sales recorded last year, there’s no shortage of cash to spread around. Company philanthropic donations fill the coffers of nonprofit organizations, university science departments reap endowments, and contributions from its political action committee help fuel the campaigns of politicians far and wide.

Given all that clout, stirring up issues that threaten everything from residential property values to the bottom line of the town’s leading employer has come with a price.

“It puts you on the outside of society,” said Hebert. “There’s no question about that. I don’t want to say I don’t care, because I do. It can get lonely. But when people start telling you stories about their children being born with deformities, it really gets into your gut.”

“Overzealous people”

Not that Hebert ever envisioned the issue would consume much of her life.

“When I first started doing this, I thought it was a little problem, that the community would work on it, and we’d get it fixed, and I could get on with my regular life. That’s not the way it turned out.

“It used to be that I was a homemaker, a mother, a woman. Now, I’m a watchdog. It’s not even like something you do. It becomes who you are.”

For a lot of people in this town, she’s viewed more as a menace.

“I tell my wife that if I ever have a stroke, I know exactly who it is that’s to blame,” said Duane Marsh, president of the Midland Chamber of Commerce. He chuckles as he said this, but judging from the tone of his voice, he was only half joking.

Asked if he’s referring to Hebert, Marsh replied, “That’s right.”

Like Mayor Black, Marsh contends that as much of 95 percent of a person’s exposure to dioxin comes through the food chain, which will affect a person no matter where they live. “This,” he said, “is a problem that faces the whole industrial world. But Midland gets singled out, and that makes me angry.”

Hebert, however, points out that those numbers apply to people living in towns with normal levels of dioxin. Midland, according to the most recent state study, has a mean dioxin level about 12 times greater than that of cities in the rest of the state. Add to that the level of fish contamination, she claimed, and it’s easy to make the case that people here are facing a whole different set of circumstances.

Talk like that is exactly what infuriates chamber president Marsh.

“It’s unfortunate the harm that’s been done to this community in the past by a few overzealous people,” he said. “Midland doesn’t have a dioxin problem that’s a threat to anybody’s health. And if someone living in Midland really thinks it’s that unsafe, they might want to get out.”

But Hebert has no intention of leaving. Now divorced, the 55-year-old grandmother with spiked gray hair, intense blue-green eyes and a mind that seems in perpetual overdrive is relentless in her dogged — many would say obsessive — investigation into Dow. Her apartment is overflowing with news clippings, government reports, scientific studies and communications with government and company officials.

Those files, in essence, tell two very different stories. One is that promulgated by Dow, echoed by civic leaders and, at various times in the past, bolstered by government regulatory agencies. It is the message splashed across the front page of the Midland Daily News as far back as 1983, when a headline declared: “EPA soil test shows no dioxin threat.”

But like the persistence of dioxin itself, which has a half life of five to 14 years once it lodges in the body’s fatty tissues, the issue refuses to disappear. For one thing, as research into dioxin continues, the list of health hazards it is linked to keeps growing. According to a 1998 report by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), “Exposure to low levels of dioxins in study animals has resulted in a wide variety of adverse health effects, such as cancer, liver damage, and disruption of the endocrine system. In many species of animals, dioxins weaken the immune system and cause a decrease in the system’s ability to fight infection. In other animal studies, exposure to dioxins has caused reproductive damage and birth defects. Some animal species, including monkeys, exposed to dioxins during pregnancy had miscarriages, and the offspring of animals exposed to dioxins during pregnancy often had birth defects including skeletal deformities, kidney defects, weakened immune responses, and neurodevelopmental effects.”

According to a report prepared by the Michigan Department of Community Health: “It is not known whether people exposed to low levels of dioxins will experience the same health effects seen in animal studies. However, based on the available information, dioxins are believed to have the potential to cause a wide range of adverse effects in humans, including cancer.”

According to Midland’s mayor, who spent more than four months last year studying the issue with a group of other civic leaders, there’s no evidence these sorts of health problems are showing up in abnormal numbers in Midland.

“Slight excesses” of cancer

Drummond and the others were called together by Dow last summer. A facilitator hired by the company led the group through four three-hour sessions. Environmentalists, who gave a presentation during one of the sessions, asked to sit in on all of them, but were turned away. Jim Sygo, head of the state Department of Environmental Quality waste management division did sit in, but was there only to “answer questions about regulatory issues” and other such matters.

Sygo, it should be noted, did not share the conclusion that it’s been proven dioxins pose no threat to the people of Midland. According to a letter written by Art Nash, deputy director of the DEQ, he and Sygo met with Dave Dempsey, policy advisor for the nonprofit Michigan Environmental council in August of last year. Nash, summarizing the meeting, noted that he and Sygo “indicated that the extent to which exposure from the soils in the city of Midland presents a risk remains unknown at this time.”

Asked by Metro Times whether he presented that viewpoint and the research that helped form it to the panel, Sygo responded simply, “No.” Asked why not, he said that wasn’t his role in the process. “I was just there to answer questions,” he explained.

What the panel did hear was information from Dow about a series of studies it has done regarding the health of plant workers. According to those studies, said Dow spokesperson Jeff Feerer, “We’re not seeing any indication that the health of these employees is being compromised by exposure to dioxin.”

And Dow employees are exposed to “much higher” levels of dioxin than the general public, he added.

“We presented all of the information collected for the city of Midland, and for Dow workers for the past 20 years,” said Feerer. “Every piece of data that we have or that the Midland County Health Department has shows that the people of Midland are healthy.”

Mayor Black also reported that, according to county health records, Midland’s rates of cancer and birth defects are normal.

The report prepared by the Michigan Department of Community Health, which was used by the federal government to justify conducting a comprehensive study of the extend of dioxin contamination in Midland, presents a different picture.

For one thing, the report notes that “exposed” Dow workers experienced “slight excesses” of prostate, stomach, lymphatic, blood and other types of cancers when compared to “unexposed” workers. Furthermore, the more workers were exposed, the more likely they were to die from stomach and prostate cancers.

The report also noted that, when Midland’s two ZIP codes were analyzed separately, “higher-than-expected numbers of all cancers combined” were found in the ZIP code where Dow’s chemical plant is located when compared to the entire state of Michigan for the years 1994 through 1998.

The report noted that for the years 1992 through 1996 there were indeed no consistent patterns of excesses in birth defects. However, the statewide Michigan Birth Defects Registry that was used for comparison was not established until 1992. Given the newness of that database, and the relatively low number of births in Midland County each year, it is “difficult to calculate reliable statistics or detect moderate changes in risk.”

Also, according to the report, the registry does not track conditions diagnosed after two years, nor does it track behavior or learning problems — both of which have been identified as effects of prenatal exposure to dioxin.

After years dealing with Dow and local officials she says are all too eager to portray the city in a positive light, Hebert said she is not surprised by the discrepancies between the civic panel’s conclusions and the concerns raised by government experts.

“I’d like to hear Dow’s definition of transparency,” said Hebert. “Will they have a dialogue with me or answer my questions? The answer is yes. Are their answers always truthful or complete? The answer is no.”

Now, with government health experts announcing a new round of testing, both sides feel as if they’ve been through all this before.

Making excuses

Upper-level officials in the Reagan administration’s EPA claimed in 1983 that the dioxin found in Midland soil posed no health threat, but that opinion was not held by those closest to the situation, according to documents obtained by Hebert. In an internal EPA memo sent in 1985, health specialist Milt Clark argued for investigating possible negative impacts experienced by people living close to the plant. Because fish in the Tittabawassee were found to have the nation’s highest dioxin levels, it was also important to study the people eating those fish.

In a 1988 report, the EPA concluded that, with the exception of the fish problem, “dioxin levels did not present an unacceptable or unmanageable health risk to the Midland community.” More environmental and food chain monitoring programs were recommended, but the agency “did not commit to any follow-up human health studies to determine dioxin levels in the Midland population.”

The next major event occurred in 1996, when the DEQ — which had taken over the permitting process for facilities such as the Dow plant from the EPA — took 37 soil samples in Midland. Nearly one-third were found to have levels above the state cleanup standard of 90 parts per trillion. Locations exceeding the limit included two elementary schools, a middle school, a high school and a park.

Instead of implementing cleanups, which would involve digging up the contaminated soil and hauling it away, the state decided to do more testing. And instead of testing in residential areas, it was determined in negotiations with Dow to sample the grounds of its corporate headquarters, which are located in a different part of town than the chemical plant. Those tests were intended to be a “surrogate” for the community. Conducted in 1998, they found levels ranging from 66 to 476 parts per trillion.

No other sampling has taken place since, and no plan to deal with the hot spots has been implemented.

“It was just one excuse-making phase after another,” alleged Hebert.

In May 2001, Hebert and two environmental groups — the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor and the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, which represents a coalition of state groups — turned in frustration to the federal government. Hebert said the ATSDR — a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — was contacted at the suggestion of a Michigan state worker, who felt the state was simply stalling. The ATSDR, which has a cooperative agreement with the Michigan Department of Community Health, assigned the agency to conduct a preliminary investigation. The ATSDR, whose mission is to prevent harmful exposures and disease related to toxic substances, will assist the state and review its findings.

On March 4, the results were released: At this point, data does not exist to determine how much of a health threat dioxin poses to the people of Midland. Among other things that report pointed out that residential areas most likely to have high concentrations of dioxin — those located adjacent to the chemical plant — have never had their soil tested. Tests at the plant itself have discovered concentrations as high as 17,000 parts per trillion.

The way Mayor Black sees it, the ATSDR decision is a “good news-bad news sort of thing.”

“If there’s a health hazard,” he said, “let’s correct it. If not, stop saying there is, because it’s scaring people. We want to put this to bed as quickly as possible, because uncertainty is never good for the economic health of the community.”

For civic boosters such as the chamber’s Marsh, the ATSDR’s plans to begin comprehensive testing bring back nightmare visions of investigators in “moon suits” needlessly scaring residents and further tarnishing the city’s image. “We’re talking about a situation that is not unique to Midland. This is a situation faced by the whole industrialized world, but it’s been decided to put the focus on Midland, and that makes me angry. But I have complete confidence that, if it’s a fair process, they won’t find any problem here.”

As for Hebert, she’s busy hounding the state and federal agencies involved in the process to make sure that there is heavy citizen involvement in the process.

“I’m not so naive I think the saviors are here,” she said. “We’re going to have to watch what’s done next every step of the way.”

Read Curt Guyette's related story about blacked-out documents and ever-changing "acceptable levels" fuelling the dioxin controversy in Midland.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com

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